Sat, 15 Jan 2000

Building professional teachers

By Otong Setiawan Djuharie

BANDUNG (JP): An article on teaching by Bantarto Bandoro last month reminded us that teachers are transformative intellectuals who must see themselves as professionals who are able to connect pedagogical theory and practice with wider social relevancies.

Teachers work together to share ideas, exercise a collective power in the conditions of their labor, and embody in their teaching a vision of a better and more humane person.

Teaching is, indeed, a political act. One has a set of beliefs about how people should behave toward one another. He or she has convictions about the quality of life, the shape of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He or she has perhaps more than an inkling of how his skills as a teacher might be utilized to create empathy and unity in a world full of misunderstanding.

One is therefore engaged in a political, empowering act when teaching. The teacher will no doubt be very careful not to push a particular philosophy or a particular morality on the students. Teachers nevertheless must act from their deepest convictions when teaching people to speak tactfully, to interact harmoniously, to read critically and to write persuasively.

A teacher is an agent for change in a world in desperate need of change: from competition to cooperation, from powerlessness to empowerment, from conflict to resolution, from prejudice to understanding. The question is how teachers should promote professionalism and how they can best continue to grow professionally.

One approach to consider is, first, to set realistic goals. Successful professional teachers must first of all know their limitations, strengths, feelings and needs, and then set their own realistic goals. They don't let the world around them dictate their goals. They let their sense of overall purpose or mission unfold in the form of daily, weekly, monthly or annual goals.

Second is to set priorities. Priority-setting requires a sense of one's whole professional and personal life, and how working hours are best used.

Third, take risks. Professional teachers don't play it safe all the time. They are not afraid to try new things. Nor are they put off by limiting circumstances -- what cannot be done, or the way things are done. They don't linger in the safety of a comfort zone. They reach out for new challenge.

The key to risk-taking as a professional teaching strategy, however, is not simply in taking the risks. It is in learning from one's failures. When one risks a new technique in the classroom, a new approach with a different student, or a frank comment to a supervisor, one must be willing to accept a possible failure in his attempt. Then, one assesses all the facets of that failure and converts it into an experience that is instructive for the next risk.

Forth, practice principles of stress management. Teaching is a career with all the makings for high stress conditions: long hours, large classes, low pay, pressure to "perform" in class, high student expectations, emotional connections with students' lives, bureaucracy, pressure to keep up with a rapidly changing field, and information overload. Managing those potential stress factors is an important key to keeping oneself fresh, creative, bright and happy.

As one begins a teaching career, he or she may feel the weight of such heavy demands. And a teacher cannot leave the cognitive and emotional load in the office. Expect to be overworked and underpaid.

However, one of the most invigorating things about teaching is that one never stops learning. The complex interplay between teachers, learners and subject matter continually raises endless questions to answer, problems to solve, and issues to ponder. If one is a growing teacher, he or she learns something from every trip into the classroom. One finds out how well a technique works, how classroom interactions can be improved, how to assess a student's competence, how emotions enter into learning, or how his/her teaching style affects learners. The discoveries go on for a lifetime.

And what could be more instinctive to the spirit of all teachers around the world than to finely tune their ability to become agents for change? The professionalism commitment drives teachers to help others to communicate with each other and to negotiate the meaning of peace, of goodwill, and of survival on this fragile globe. One must, therefore, with all the professional tools available, passionately pursue these ultimate goals.

The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Gunung Djati State Institute for Islamic Studies in Bandung.